llyris, daulnay, & Iran give us a lesson in correlation and causation: Part 2

And here we are, part 2 of our extravaganza. We’ll focus on daulnay’s comments for a bit. First I think it important to acknowledge that this is daulnay’s first comment in that thread:

This is an anecdote, and also data; an outlier data point that needs to be accounted for.
A member of my family, who I’ve known well their entire (20ish years) life, is transitioning (M->F). At age 6, they were drawn to female characters. Throughout childhood (and beyond) when they played computer games, they would make a female character. They strongly resisted coaching to conform to male stereotypes, like stiff-upper-lipping pain or putting up with discomfort. A few years after puberty, they became more and more depressed, then suicidal. They described feeling that the body they were in was wrong, and felt life was unbearable. After starting transition, the suicidal urges disappeared. They’re much happier, and planning to live a long life.
For her relatives, this lifts an immense dread. The family she sees day-to-day is very accepting, and she’s found a larger trans community online. Where there was despair, now there’s bright hope for the future.
This is what transition is about, not a ‘social contagion’ but fixing something fundamentally askew.

This comment is clearly a statement of support for PZ’s OP, and for trans* liberation in general. When daulnay later asserts being an ally to trans* people, there’s a reason for that. They do seem to be speaking up in favor of gender liberation and against ATR (Anti-Trans Reactionary) philosophies at least some of the time. But I’m not here to praise good daulnay comments, but to criticize the bad ones. Trans, genderqueer, non-binary: lend me your ears.

Let’s start with this, from comment #47:

I used to believe that gender was just a socially imposed construct and that we were basically all the same underneath.

Gender is absolutely a socially imposed construct. There are no doubts about that. Literally every single linguistic category we have is a social construct. From “rock” to “stone” to “mineral” to “meteorite” and many more, the boundaries of such categories are entirely created through social agreement. Gender, likewise, is a social construct. There is no doubt about that, and nor is there doubt that normative statements are created out of that construct and that these norms are then enforced, or “imposed”, on members of society.

The problem here is the word “just”. Anyone who understands how categories are socially constructed would never say that gender is “just” or “merely” a social construct. Algebra is a social construct which we maintain is equally distinct from arithmetic, geometry, and calculus. Yet algebra is not “just” a social construct. It is also an incredibly powerful tool.

Gender is a social construct, yes, but it is also a tool, and it is also a weapon, and it is also many things besides. So here daulnay’s writing appears to be learned, informed, and even deep. The implication is that most people who understand that gender is a social construct also believe that we are all “basically the same underneath”.

But that can’t be true if we acknowledge the existence of transsexual people, transgender people, non-binary people, and cis people who engage in genderfuck or drag as a hobby (just for starters). Hell it can’t even be true if we acknowledge the existence of both FtM and MtF folks. The relationships people have with their bodies and with other aspects of their own selves are different from the relationships others have. “We are all basically the same underneath” carries that same evergreen appeal that white people embrace when declaring, “love sees no color” or when insisting that the end of racism is a colorblind society instead of one that can see, can acknowledge, can embrace, and can celebrate differences like skin tone and culture that have been used to define races of people in the past, but can do that without ever hating, degrading, assaulting, demeaning, or devaluing a single person based upon those differences.

“We are all basically the same” permits us to ignore the problems of compulsory gender, since it implies that if one such compulsion doesn’t bother me, it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) bother anyone else. This is not to say that everyone who expresses the sentiment “we are all basically the same” is themselves ignoring the problems of compulsory gender any more than I was ignoring racism in society when I bought my “Love see no color” shirt at queer pride 25 years ago. But when I realized that sentiment wasn’t helping, that it fell into the trap of making colorblindness seem reasonable, even noble, I didn’t declare that I had gained some deep understanding of racism to which others had not had access. Rather I learned that my previous understandings of racism and how to confront it were superficial, and that giving up those superficial understandings was nothing to brag about.

I’m not upset that daulnay expressed this – it’s a normal stage to pass through – but we’re trying to discover why communication in that other thread went so badly, and I think it’s instructive to note that daulnay moves from announcing that they’ve grown past “we’re all the same” in a way that might seem self-celebratory, then goes on to write about gender diversity without even a hint of an acknowledgement that other people on this thread might not need that insight:

Instead, we seem to be incredibly varied; there are people who are solidly cis-het and completely comfortable with the gender norms for their sex, people who feel no real gender, people who feel they’re a mix, people who feel like they’re a mix but believe that there are only two genders and something’s wrong with themselves, people who feel one sex and the other gender (and that’s perfectly fine), people who feel both sex and gender are wrong, and many more. It’s not simple, period; it’s messy and complicated. Some of the bigotry comes from knowing how you are inside, and not realizing/understanding that some other people may genuinely be very different. Getting that across might be a first step towards general acceptance for us all.

It’s not that this is wrong, per se. It’s that it appears to assume that no one in daulnay’s readership has taken this step towards general acceptance, a step that daulnay believes is the very first one to take.

Now this begins to color how readers see that earlier “I used to think we’re all the same” sentiment. Instead of possibly self-congratulatory, in the context of what comes immediately thereafter it seems downright triumphalist. Hey, everyone! Look at me! I’ve found the way that you haven’t found!

And again, it’s not that daulnay says that, or even that daulnay necessarily feels that. It’s just that in a thread half full of trans people, it’s inevitable that writing that looks like it might be triumphalist and self-celebratory is actually going to be taken that way for serious by a percentage of readers. It might be a misunderstanding of daulnay, but it’s a misunderstanding that is inevitable when speaking to an audience as large as the internet.

And, of course, it’s just a blog comment. It’s not a crisis. You can make these mistakes and come back later to correct them and little harm will be done. But if you leave your comment open to interpretation and someone then interprets it, what you don’t do is blame the reader for failing to interpret your ambiguities in your favor.

The next bit in comment #47 is a refutation of 183231bcb’s comment #39 which read in part:

Everyone who accepts trans people also accepts GNC people, but there are an awful lot of people who hate trans people more than they hate GNC people.

For the refutation, daulnay ropes in a known problem in Iran:

At least one society treats homosexuality and gender identity as a medical body dysphoria problem – Iran. So trans people are so more accepted there while GNC people are fiercely persecuted. The Iranian government and religious rulers accept that trans people exist, allow (and even pay for) gender reassignment surgery, and allow official documents to reflect the change. Gender norms get vigorously and viciously enforced, with the death penalty for homosexuality. So, the opposite of what @39 claims.

So 183231bcb’s “everyone” is revealed to be a bit overbroad, and there would almost certainly be edge cases disproving the absolute even if “everyone” was restricted to “everyone in the USA”, which might also be a reasonable interpretation of the original claim in comment #39.

The problem isn’t so much daulnay’s factual refutation of language which was, after all, somewhat overbroad. The problem here is that 183231bcb was replying to llyris, and that context has been ignored. The impression, then, is that daulnay is actually siding with llyris. So if some specific language in #39 was wrong, does that mean that llyris in comment #38 and earlier statements was right?

Well, no. Not necessarily, and it especially does not mean that llyris was right in the specific assertions that comment 39 was crafted to address. Take this:

25 years ago I felt like there was something wrong with my body because the way society viewed my body didn’t line up with my thoughts. Today I would probably be told I’m trans.
But I’m not. I’m a cis het woman. The problem was never my body but the hidden gender norms I was pushed into. And they are deeply hidden.
I wonder if some of the increase in trans and intersex expression is not so much a fundamental problem within a person, but a problem with how they intersect with society.

Llyris’s personal experience is her personal experience and I wouldn’t begin to dream of saying that experience wasn’t true or is “wrong” in any respect. Llyris’ experience is llyris’ experience.

However the conclusions that one draws based upon one’s experience can be wrong – both in the sense of factually incorrect and in other senses of the word “wrong”. Here llyris is asserting

Today I would probably be told I’m trans.


I wonder if some of the increase in trans and intersex expression is not so much a fundamental problem within a person, but a problem with how they intersect with society.

Together, these endorse the view of Ophelia Benson at Butterflies & Wheels that PZ critiqued in the OP:

“Increased social acceptance has led to more young people describing themselves as trans”…which can be seen as tolerance and liberality, or as social contagion that encourages “young people” to make drastic and irreversible changes to their bodies. It can be seen as both.

Llyris believes that people who aren’t trans are being told that they are and “wonders” if this is a new form of social pressure coercing people to come out as trans when that is not the healthiest strategy for them. While avoiding the highly charged language of “contagion”, this is exactly the assertion that Benson made. If comment #39’s purpose was to call bullshit on the idea that people are being forced to come out as trans because trans people and trans advocates can’t tolerate gender non-conformity, then daunay’s #47 undoes some of the work of #39 without ever noticing that #39’s overbroad use of “everyone” is far less problematic than #38’s agreement with Benson that coercion to come out as trans is a problem that must be stopped.

For those trans persons reading the thread, an emphasis on showing the limits of #39’s “everyone” while ignoring #38’s support for Benson and implicit call to stop or tone down trans advocacy lest vulnerable cis people be coerced into unhealthy behavior seems … less than supportive. It’s in this context that I know I made the decision that daulnay was no ally. And again, that’s not to say that daulnay has hatred boiling in their heart for trans people. Just because you have no hatred, just because you even have good will, doesn’t mean that your actions are those of an ally. Being an ally means doing shit. Undercutting the people who oppose the agenda found in the writings of llyris without undercutting the idea that people are being coerced into coming out as trans by trans advocates is bad ally work.

It may even be true that daulnay had good intentions. I’m not here to ESP the intentions out of daulnay’s brain. My purpose here is to remind people that intent is not magic. You know, “the road to hell” and all that. Whether daulnay is, as seems ridiculously unlikely, secretly saying some reasonable and positive things only so they are taken more credibly when they stab trans people in the back, or whether daulnay is someone who wishes the best for trans folks but hasn’t figured out how to advocate for us without tripping over their rhetorical toes, get a blaster caught in their trouser leg, and flail away until they shoot a few people, the fact remains that by coming between 183231bcb and llyris, daulnay gives off the impression that they are taking sides in favor of the idea that trans advocacy must be somewhat curtailed to mitigate the dangers which worry both Benson and llyris.

Worse, despite the clear criticism of llyris, daulnay makes it fully clear that interpreting them as supporting llyris’ worst speculations is indeed the fairest way to interpret daulnay. This clarification happens in comment #95:

To me, Illyris’ (sic) point seems to be that some people today might feel that transition is the right choice because of the deep sexual stereotyping they absorbed, and it’s confusing/difficult to sort out what’s underlying biological sexuality and what’s profound absorbtion of cultural stereotyping.

So, yes, daulnay sees llyris’ point and accepts it as valid. What is odd, of course, is that daulnay carefully understates llyris just a tiny bit, just enough to make llyris’ writing seem reasonable. The obvious statement llyris is making is that some people might be making these wrong choices and this is a bad thing which all of us should concern ourselves with and maybe even work to prevent.

But it does not follow that every bad choice a person might make is of social significance and deserves a societal response. When as a bike-riding teenager I was run off the road by a speeding driver and smashed into a parked car, we had laws against speeding, but we didn’t (and still don’t) about listening to the radio on headphones while riding a bike. As it turns out, what drove me off the road was a terrifying roar of the engine as the car, already speeding, accelerated as they passed me close by*1. Here’s the thing, though. If I hadn’t been listening to NPR (yes, laugh at the teenage geek riding a bicycle to the movies while listening to NPR) while riding, I would certainly have heard the car coming from farther away. While the engine noise might have increased next to me, it wouldn’t have seemed to me as if the car appeared from thin air only two feet from me with a sudden roar. In the end both the speeding, possibly reckless driving of the car and my own radio-listening were necessary to create my fear and my surprise and cause me to veer off the road. But while society responded to the problem of cars driven quickly and recklessly, society never responded to the problem of kids listening to NPR whilst on their ten-speeds.

The warning in llyris’ writing is, “maybe this trans advocacy has gone too far”. Unstated is the idea, “and maybe therefore we should restrict trans advocacy, or come up with some society counter-message in response”. It may be unstated, but crying out, “Hey everyone, here’s a problem!” can only be understood as implying, “and we should respond to that problem.” Daulnay says of llyris:

While what she wrote might seem awfully close to a TERF talking point, it’s not.

It’s awfully close because it is, literally, a talking point of people known as TERFs (whom I am choosing to name ATRs right now).

Not everything that ATRs say is a lie, and they use, “maybe this trans advocacy has gone too far b/c what about people who buy into stereotypes and can’t be trusted to think for themselves?” as a talking point. Even daulnay repeats this talking point:

It makes sense that some people, especially someone very emotionally comfortable with gender stereotypes, might embrace transition when they don’t fit the stereotype for their sex, rather than accepting gender-nonconformity.

Maybe it makes sense, but the ATRs do not stop at, “It makes sense that in a world of billions, some people whose healthiest option is not to come out as trans will come out as trans.” They insist that this is a social problem and deserves a social response.*2 Llyris, too, is arguing that this is a problem that deserves social consideration. Unfortunately, daulnay mistakes the conversation and disagreement as being entirely about facts:

Illyris did not express any concerns that people are being pressured to transition that I could see. She did point out that the intersection of body and gender is complicated, that acceptance of transitioning has increased, and that there is social openness to transitioning that wasn’t there earlier.

But the idea that llyris has no problem with cis folk being told they are (or might be? or probably are? what’s the line here?) healthier coming out trans is naive to the nearly point of disingenuinity. The entire point of this passage is to compare contemporary trans advocacy to past hostility to gender non-conformity:

When I was younger I didn’t fit the stereotype of what a woman should be, and want, and feel. I was told so many times that I was born the wrong gender and I felt like I was born the wrong gender because how I felt and what I wanted didn’t line up with feminine things. …

25 years ago I felt like there was something wrong with my body because the way society viewed my body didn’t line up with my thoughts. Today I would probably be told I’m trans.
But I’m not. I’m a cis het woman.

The only reasonable interpretation is that llyris sees being told that one is trans merely because one is gender non-conforming is, in this current moment, both likely and a problem. To anyone reading llyris as saying this thing that llyris is quite obviously saying, daulnay comes off as someone minimizing the very real problem and being more invested in protecting people who spout ATR talking points so long as they don’t spout the absolute worst of the ATR talking points than they are in supporting the people who are opposing those talking points.

Now, it might be that daulnay was led astray in interpreting llyris by this bit of llyris’ comment:

This isnt an argument against trans though, because if that’s what makes you feel comfortable and happy then go for it. It’s an argument for greater acceptance of diversity of behaviour and greater examination of gender assumptions.

But it’s not really just that, is it? Llyris does think that you should be free to do what you want with your own gender and your own body. However llyris just thinks you should shut up about gender when it’s not yours. Llyris thinks that hearing that you might be trans when you might not be is a problem that needs a solution, and without a more explicit solution on offer the only one that can reasonably said to be implied is “Shut up lest you be wrong.”

This may not be a friendly reading of llyris. It may not be a generous reading of llyris. But it is the reading that remains closest to the text. If there is a problem with llyris having failed to fully and clearly express her intended points then it may later prove that this was an incorrect reading. But the reader cannot telepathically contact llyris to disambiguate the failings of her written word. It is what it is, and llyris is clearly saying that she believes people are told that they are trans when they are not, and that this is a problem.

Other reasonable contextual clues make this worse, though they are not necessary to prove that the specific comments llyris made in PZ’s thread deserve criticism. But since we’re on about it already, and since I think I already passed the 150 word mark a couple sentences ago, we might as well note this: it is one thing to say that some people who assert someone else might be trans need to reexamine their gender stereotypes. After all, when I was growing up I was called queer and girl by bullies who ended up being accidentally correct, but weren’t at all attempting to be helpful and who certainly did (and most likely do) need to spend more time thinking about stereotypes. But this isn’t a thread about bullies. This is a thread in which llyris is partially agreeing with Benson’s writings in which Benson is arguing that trans advocacy has gone too far.

So the most reasonable interpretation isn’t even that some people are telling others that they are or might be trans when they are not. The most reasonable interpretation is that trans advocates are the ones doing this. Assuming for the sake of argument that this is the interpretation that we’re going with, then the admonition that those people need to more deeply investigate those gender stereotypes, as their current understandings are insufficient is an admonition targeting trans advocates. Thus the paragraph, on the most likely interpretation, appears to be saying that trans advocates haven’t been thinking about gender stereotypes, or at least not sufficiently, and that trans advocates are the ones we need to worry about propagating harmful gender stereotypes through our communities.

Again, this isn’t spelled out, and it could be an incorrect interpretation, but it’s still a reasonable one. It’s even the one that I think is most likely. In my view, a person who thought that trans advocates were not the source of this problem and who instead was targeting bullies using stereotypes about trans persons to demean would have written their comment very differently.

Given that it’s a reasonable, plausible, and even likely interpretation, it’s on llyris to accept responsibility for writing the comment that way, not on readers for failing to imagine a less likely but more flattering-to-llyris interpretation of the words written.

But daulnay never faults llyris’ comments for any ambiguities or for any common threads with the criticized post written by Benson and critiqued by PZ.

At the end of comment 95, daulnay writes:

Life is diverse and complex. We all should be able to share our experiences without being attacked for “supporting XXX talking points”. Please read carefully, especially when your blood is up.

But… no. If your comment supports XXX talking points, you should be subject to the potential for criticism. No one should gain immunity to such criticism merely because the reason that they support harmful talking points is grounded in personal experience. Llyris’s personal experience shouldn’t be denied, but if llyris or anyone else writes a comment in which they use their personal experience to argue that someone -probably trans advocates, but it’s hard to tell- is creating a social problem by talking about people potentially being trans, the fact that they came to their wrong-headed conclusion by examining their personal experience is not a get-out-of-criticism-free card.

Finally, if we’re seeking to understand why people took poorly to daulnay’s comments, it has to be pointed out that other statements played a role:

A few people in the heated part of this discussion seem to feel that other participants were disregarding their lived experience. To me, it looked like both sides were mis-understanding what the other was trying to say. Everyone here seems to be engaging in good faith and trying to understand, aside from that one troll (naturist-something?). When someone’s describing their experience and trying to understand it that doesn’t mean they’re denying yours. It means that the understandings that you’ve both reached are incomplete

This isn’t the only passage like this, but it is enough. In it daulnay comes across as speaking in that familiar and annoying “superior to both sides” tone.

Me? I chose mostly to ignore daulnay as both preachy and as far less informed than they ought to be. Remember the bit earlier about reading carefully? That falls particularly flat when careful reading is exactly what it seems daulnay avoids in order to continue interpreting llyris in a generous light. To me it’s cause for a good eye roll and a quick jump to the next comment, but I certainly understand why someone defending someone defending Benson’s anti-trans premises might generate more anger than eye-rolls in at least some readers.


*1: The generous interpretation was that they were mildly speeding before passing me and then speeded up while passing me not because they thought they would hurt me, but because in moving beyond me they knew that they were no longer a threat to me if I swerved, so it might be just as safe for them to travel at a higher speed.

*2: They also have some things to say about what the response should be, but llyris never went there, so that is irrelevant to whether llyris is using ATR talking points.

ETA: Two typos fixed, after generous tip from John Morales.


  1. John Morales says

    Cripes! You’re scary good at analysis, CD.

    But hey, I did find a couple of typos. 😉
    (“both me” , “grown passed”)

  2. says

    Thank you for doing this, CD – it’s helpful. I reacted to daulnay out of more reflex than conscious thought, because quite simply put he hit several cues that I see on the daily over on That Other Extremely Hostile Social Media Site I tend to abuse myself with (I know, I know, it’s a bad habit), and your analysis is really helping pin down exactly what it is about those behaviors that instantly put my hackles up.

    I’m almost dreading, though, the moment if and when you start addressing what I got wrong in that discussion… 😅

  3. says

    I should say “the specifics of what I got wrong” – you’re already obliquely addressing the fact I was addressing common TER…or ATR?… cues and perceived dogwhistles rather than deeply analyzing what was said.

  4. says

    I responded to that thread early, but dropped out for lack of time, and when I saw other people had it covered.

    When commenters deny that they’re using TERF talking points, my interpretation is that, they simply aren’t familiar with TERF talking points at all, they’re just thinking “TERFs bad, and me not bad, so me not echo TERFs.” I would have appreciated if these commenters expressed the least bit of understanding, or at least curiosity about said TERF talking points. That might have demonstrated that they were at least interested in where we were coming from.

  5. Jazzlet says

    You see that “if we just all listened to each other carefully we’d find common ground” attitude in all sorts of contexts, and it is pretty universally guaranteed to get people’s backs up; especially when said by someone who is both clearly not listening carefully themselves, is relatively ignorant of the nuances of the dispute, and one side is wanting to make the other side do or not do something, while that other side wants to be left to get on with their lives without interference by busybodies (way too polite a word).

    Thank you again CD.

  6. Allison says

    I was thinking about the claim that people transition so they can conform to the stereotypes and/or the gender roles associated with the target gender, and the suggestion that they should remain in their assigned gender and just be gender non-conforming.

    But the experience of being a gender non-conforming male is very different from being a trans woman.

    The problem is that how you are treated and responded to and how your words and actions are interpreted depends upon what gender people think you are. For instance, there’s the whole “dominant male” thing, and if you’re seen as male, a lot of people will expect you to try to be top dog. I had a boss who was really weirded out by the fact that I would freely admit it when I was wrong or didn’t know something, and I think he treated me more dismissively because of it. And if you’re seen as male, women will always be kind of wary with you, for good reason, of course. (Cf.: “Schrödinger’s Rapist”)

    For me, one of the big benefits of transitioning was that I was no longer dealing with those expectations. It felt like getting out of prison. I could just be myself and not get all kinds of blowback for it. I was pretty gender non-conforming for a number of years before I ever thought that I was trans, but people still reacted to me and interpreted my behavior the way they would with other men. I was, in their eyes, a very weird man, but still a man and subject to the rules that men labor under and which fit me so badly. This is one of the biggest things that changed when I transitioned.

    Maybe if society were different, a lot of people who now transition would not feel a need to. I often wonder whether if, when growing up, my nature had been seen as a perfectly reasonable way for a male to be, I might have been happy to continue living as a man. But that’s not the society we live in. I have to live in society as it is. And how society is (and especially how it was when I was growing up) is what has made me the trans person I am.

  7. Prax says

    Electric Monk @5,

    Nope, Prax is Anton Mates. Changed my ‘nym when I came out as non-binary.

    I just got mad because daulnay’s first post looked plagiarized to me. Forgot that I have one licensed impersonator out there, and it might be them! But I get paranoid when Ophelia or the ‘pitters might be involved, and their subsequent posts seemed to be drifting TERFward, so I bit.

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